Saturday, April 21, 2012

One for Felix

Haven't posted for a while. But April 20 is my other birthday. 23 years ago today I had my final gender reassignment surgery.
Some well-meaning friends don't get it that I want to celebrate this day, in my own quiet way. After all, it's done now, why live in the past?
Well, in the first place, hushing it up implies lying about the past, and I think lying about who you were is the same thing as lying about who you are. Mind, I'm not going to stand in the middle of a biker bar and shout it out, nor am I going to ramble incessantly about it like a silly schoolgirl. But no more shame, not of who I was, not of who I am.
Second, the people who tell me to keep mum about my past sometimes seem more ashamed of it than I am. Paradoxically, many of them are people who've outed me to others to show off how open-minded they are to have me as a friend (sorry, but my private life is not your trophy), or people who know my business but have never had the decency to discuss it with me directly. Maybe they have their own stuff to deal with, but I try to be there for the hard stuff for my friends, and I hope for the same from them. It disappoints me when that reciprocation is missing.
If I sound a little bitter about some of that, we have a bingo, please hold your cards.
But as frustrating as all that can be, if someone else has a problem with my life, that's just what it is: their problem. It's up to them to solve it.
This day also gives me pause to remember all the things I've done in those years.
The bad comes from trusting the wrong people and not trusting myself: an abusive relationship, bad financial decisions, too hesitant to act in advancing my career.
The good comes from taking chances related to knowing I'm worth taking a chance on: randomly recording original music, published articles, a newspaper strip, self-published comics, a technical college diploma, a BFA, a Master's, and a twelve- year (so far) teaching career.
I'm still fighting to stay motivated on my own work. What creative person doesn't share that fight? But I learn from watching others who simply do the work, without conceit or complaint.
The first of these I observed during these years was a teacher who shared my original birthday, Felix Ampah.
Photo used for MTC Catalog dedicated to Felix
I first encountered this bright smile and dark voice in a Drawing and Painting course at Minneapolis Community & Technical College.  I'd had surgery less than three months prior to starting the Commercial Art program there, and was still quite unsteady on my feet, in every sense. But it would be disingenuous to say Felix made me feel at home, since he had that effect on everyone.
We began talking about comic art as he taught me basic techniques, later built on in Airbrush and Portfolio classes. Even when we were not in his classes, we sought him out for advice on art and career, and we looked to the way he conducted himself as an example of what an artist could do with his/her own life.
We didn't know how rich that life was until later.
I bragged about having seen Hendrix, and that really got Felix going. He was a huge hendrix fan, studying his guitar technique and lyrics scrupulously. When Felix talked to me about learning to play Hendrix licks on homemade guitars in Ghana, I had no idea that he was actually a Ghanan prince, and got special permission from his father to study art in the States.
Felix and his wife Sylvia
Life isn't a contest and there's enough to go around, as long as people are willing to share and trust. But I still find myself in awe of what people are willing to give up to get the lives they want, and how happy they often are with those choices.
Felix maintained his joy teaching in a place where some of the teachers seemed rather unhappy with their lots in life. In time, his successful career as a painter led him to open his own gallery, Ampah Gallery.
A Felix painting, reminiscent of Reginald Marsh
I was driving a different route home from teaching one February night when I noticed the sign for Ampah Gallery. Thinking that it might be "our Felix", as we called him, I made a mental note of stopping by during regular hours.
But I was too late. A couple weeks later, I saw his obituary in Insight, a local paper dedicated to news of the Black community.
I did stop in a couple weeks later, to look about and sign the guest book in Felix's memory in thanks for all he'd given me.
Felix's critiques bordered on Zen but were always eminently practical. Every now and then some overly regimented student would gripe about his criticisms not being specific enough, but the rest of us got it. He was giving us room to explore, and pointing in the right direction. Only the best teachers can pull that off.
He also taught adjunct at U of MN, and has had a scholarship in design named for him at MTC.
I miss him on my other birthday, Feb. 19. As I mentioned, it was his day too.
I hope this inspires me rather than intimidating. Looking at the scope of the accomplishments of others contributes greatly to a sense of inadequacy, which immobilizes creativity.
But I also remember Felix working at a dozen different projects- posters, prints, lesson plans, inventions (!), a pilot for an unproduced PBS series on airbrushing (screened in class for fun). He just kept working.
That's the challenge, and the only way to do it is to do it.
As Steve Rude once said, hey, what else you got to do with your life?